Appellate Judge James A. Stewart powerwalks through secret corridors.
"You certainly know how to fly this crate, don't
Yes, it's a trip back in time to the days of the original Doctor Who, when the TARDIS chose its own stops, special effects were often hampered by budgetary considerations, and the Doctor never appeared to have a lustful thought, even when traveling with lovely companions like Nyssa and Tegan. Of course, with the Doctor's relationship with Sarah Jane Smith retrofitted to spawn a spinoff, even that's in question.
From 1981 to 1984, Peter Davison (All Creatures Great and Small) wandered through time and space as the Fifth Doctor, a renegade Time Lord who could pop up anywhere in the universe, but tends to land in England and always lands in trouble. Daleks were no longer everybody's favorite killer alien robots by the 1980s, but Doctor Who still had a few years of frequent flier miles left. Doctor Who: The Black Orchid is a two-parter from 1982.
Facts of the Case
The Doctor and his companions—Nyssa (Sarah Sutton), Tegan (Janet Fielding), and Adric (Matthew Waterhouse)—arrive at a railway station in 1925 England and find a chauffeur waiting to whisk the Doctor away to a cricket match. The Doctor gives a "ripping performance" on the pitch, but their host, Lord Cranleigh, is more impressed by Nyssa's resemblance to his fiancee Ann.
The foursome is invited to a masquerade at Cranleigh's estate. The Doctor's harlequin costume mysteriously disappears, and the Doctor disappears as well, down a hidden corridor. Meanwhile, Ann decides that she and Nyssa should wear the same costume.
The Doctor finds botany textbooks and a dead body at the end of the tunnel, while a mysterious figure dressed as a harlequin attacks Nyssa—or is it Ann?
Black Orchid starts off promisingly. I was amused when the Doctor and his companions took an invitation meant for some other doctor, and the cricket scenes were goofy fun. However, the actual mystery, a variation on The Phantom of the Opera, was a little too easy to solve. Once you've puzzled it out, you'll just be sitting there waiting for the Doctor to catch up.
Black Orchid has a throwaway plot, relatively lacking in the cliffhanger thrills that you'd associate with Doctor Who. While the new series has its share of thin plots, those episodes usually have some good character moments or at least a lot of funny bits. In Black Orchid, character moments—like Tegan's skill at the Charleston or Adric's big appetite at the buffet—seem like filler. The basic idea seems to be to churn out a couple of quick episodes to fill out a season. That rankles especially if you consider that the current Doctor Who did a better job with a similar mansion mystery in the past season.
The Doctor spends much of the first half wandering through corridors in a dressing gown, asking questions like, "Why do I always let my curiosity get the better of me?" If this was meant as a shoutout to Arthur Dent, great. If not, a little explanation of the "What Were They Thinking?" variety would be in order. In the second half, the Doctor takes the police who suspect him of murder on a tour of his TARDIS. Even the Tenth Doctor, whose battles with aliens are discussed online and covered on BBC newscasts, wouldn't do that.
It seems that Peter Davison wasn't impressed with Black Orchid either. In his commentary with co-stars Matthew Waterhouse, Sarah Sutton, and Janet Fielding, Davison and companions basically rip the story apart MST3K style. They point out continuity errors caused by a rainstorm, recall trying not to laugh while delivering this dialogue, and try to figure out whether that's Nyssa or Ann on screen. It's good-humored, self-deprecating fun.
There's also an info text option that provides facts about "the first purely historical" Doctor Who story since 1967. It's interesting to consider the possibility that Gallifrey, the Doctor's home planet, had trains and learn that the Doctor's police box was in a style that first appeared in 1929, but a lot of the material in the subtitles is found elsewhere on the DVD. It also seems like they ran out of things to say, since there are long gaps in the subtitled material. It eventually joins the commentary in sarcasm about plot holes.
There are a lot of odds and ends here for fans; you could spend three hours or more viewing everything here—and that's just with a 49-minute episode. "Now and Then: The Locations of Black Orchid" tours the locations used in the serial; "Points of View," a segment from a 1980s BBC program, reads off funny letters about a time slot change for Doctor Who; some wisely deleted scenes; a Blue Peter segment on the episode's costumer; "Stripped for Action—The Story of the Doctor Who Comics: The Fifth Doctor" points out that Peter Davison, by virtue of having a more ordinary looking face than his predecessors, was harder to draw as it provides a look at the long-running tie-in comic; and a photo gallery is set to music. If you have a DVD-ROM player, you can also access the Radio Times listing for the episode.
I'll have to admit that I looked up the Easter Egg online; the Doctor Who WAV Archive told me that it's unlocked via a hidden show logo, found "to the left of the 'Points of View'" on the second page of the menu of special features. What you find is two announcements telling viewers how to access Ceefax subtitles. I'd have preferred Reese's peanut butter eggs myself.
There's some color flaring and bleeding, but the BBC did a good job overall with the transfer. They pat themselves on the back with a segment on film restoration.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
If you're just looking for a nostalgia boost and you spot Doctor Who: Black Orchid on sale, it's an agreeable time passer. Moreover, I learned a few things from all those extras. Heck, I didn't know there was an American comic based on the Peter Cushing movie version.
Doctor Who: Black Orchid is listed on the DVD cover as "Story No. 121." While not all of them are on DVD—or even still existing—there are still a lot of serials out there, meaning that even the most ardent fan and collector has to prioritize. If you're a fan of the original series, there are probably lots of other Doctor Who serials you want to pick up first. If you haven't seen classic Doctor Who, look through some of the reviews on DVD Verdict to get a feel for which stories you might enjoy, and maybe try some classic battles with the Daleks for starters.
If you're a particular fan of Peter Davison, though, you might want Doctor Who: Black Orchid for the commentary track, which may be more entertaining than the episode.
The defendant is put on probation. It's a good DVD treatment, but this serial
is a low priority for anyone collecting Doctor Who.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: BBC Video
• Audio Commentary by Peter Davison, Janet Fielding, Sarah Sutton, and Matthew Waterhouse
Review content copyright © 2008 James A. Stewart; Site design and review layout copyright © 2013 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.